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Chinstrap penguin decline in Antarctica – climate change reported to be most likely cause


Populations of chinstrap penguins are in decline around the Antarctic Peninsula – one of the fastest warming places on the planet.

The US-based organisation Oceanites has been collecting and analysing penguin population data at many locations on the Antarctic Peninsula since 1994. One of those is Deception Island (62°57’S, 60°38’W) – one of the most incredible islands on Earth.

Deception Island, near the Antarctic PeninsulaDeception Island, South Shetland Islands, showing the 10 kilometre diameter flooded caldera that collapsed about 10,000 years ago following a major volcanic eruption. © British Antarctic Survey

Deception is an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands, off the Antarctic Peninsula. Its unique landscape comprises barren volcanic slopes, steaming beaches and ash-layered glaciers. It has a distinctive horse-shoe shape with a large, flooded caldera. This opens to the sea through a narrow channel at ‘Neptune’s Bellows’, forming a natural sheltered harbour.

It’s one of the only places in the world where vessels can sail directly into the centre of a restless volcano. Before joining WWF, I headed up an international team of scientists, policy experts and environmental NGOs responsible for designating Deception Island as a Specially Managed Area under the Antarctic Treaty.

In the recent penguin census, the Antarctic Site Inventory team counted 79,849 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins, including 50,408 breeding pairs at Baily Head. This spectacular natural rock amphitheatre was once believed to contain the largest chinstrap colony in Antarctica.

Chinstrap penguin nesting with chicksNearly 80,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins breed on Deception Island - but this number is falling rapidly. © NOAA Photo Library

There’s now strong evidence to suggest a significant – more than 50% – drop in the abundance of chinstraps breeding here since 1986 / 1987, consistent with declines in this species throughout the region.

High-resolution satellite imagery available for two ‘austral’ (southern hemisphere) summers – in 2002 / 2003 and 2009 / 2010 – confirmed that the population declined by 39% over that seven-year period.

According to Dr Heather Lynch, chief scientist on this Antarctic Site Inventory Project, there is “overwhelming evidence that climate is responsible for the dramatic changes [in these penguin populations] that we are seeing on the peninsula”.

WWF, along with other environmental organisations, is calling on CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which manages the seas around Antarctica) to adopt a network of Marine Protected Areas – including marine reserves off limits to commercial fisheries – to protect vital Southern Ocean feeding grounds for penguins and other marine species. We’re also working at CCAMLR to ensure that any fisheries in the Southern Ocean are sustainably managed, by implementing ecosystem-based fisheries management.

And of course, we’re also calling on the UK government to urgently implement our UK Climate Change Act, and to play a leading role in a global transition to a sustainable low-carbon future – for the good of our whole planet, particularly the climate-vulnerable polar regions.

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